The Mother of all Roads, how it started.
While searching for a new bike last year, I stumbled on a gently used Salsa Cutthroat, a carbon frame endurance adventure bike with drop bars and knobby tires. As I unpacked the bike, I discovered a map of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route(GDMBR) was printed on the under tube. I had never heard of the GDMBR before but quickly figure out it was the longest mountain bike route in the world, spanning from Canada to the Mexican border in New Mexico. It is the mother of all ultra-endurance mountain bike routes and my bike had been specifically designed to race it, how cool was that! One thing leading to the other, I learned about an underground self-supported race called the Tour Divide which uses most of the original GDMBR, spanning from Banff Canada to Antelope Wells, NM. The 2700+ miles route goes up and down the Continental Divide with the equivalent ascent of summitting Mt Everest from sea level 7 times.
A wild dream of wilderness.
Bikepacking was no stranger to me but it was a 30 years old teenage years souvenir of mountain biking with a heavy backpack slicing into my shoulders. The bike led me to rediscover modern bikepacking and ultra-endurance bikepacking, a form of off-road bike touring with lighter equipment capable of handling single tracks and gravel roads over daunting distances. Adventure was calling my name and I fell in love with bikepacking again. I’m always up for a seemingly impossible challenge and decided that I wanted to be part of the 150 to 200 elite riders from all over the world,annually lining up on the second Friday of June for the Tour Divide Race Grand Depart, at the 8AM “GO” out of Crazy Larry’s loud speaker in front of Banff’s YMCA. The race unbroken record is held by the late Mike Hall, a UK citizen who finished under 14 days in 2016 and was unfortunately killed by a car a year later while racing the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia. He averaged 196 miles a day, it’s fast and I’m not that fast - I figured I would aim for the average racer finish time of 20 to 24 days. What would be even better is to do this as a family someday, with my wife Valerie and son Elliott, however we would need a good 2 months for it, so I keep buying lottery tickets now and then.
TATR, my first ultra-endurance race.
After a couple shorter (150 and 190 miles) bikepacking trips this year in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, I decided to tackle something more difficult to test myself and the equipment. I have been told that although this race is shorter than the Tour Divide, it is more difficult, very difficult, he was not kidding. To make it more challenging, if that was not enough, the organizer asked participants to consider doing it self-sustained instead of self-supported because of COVID, so out of the 20 riders I was one of the 3 who signed up for a self-sustained race. The difference is that you carry everything and cannot rely on commercial services of any kind, I had 13 lbs of food strapped to my front suspension, lots of extra weight! Retrospectively, it was too much weight for the challenge ahead, but I learned a lot from that mistake. I learned that I overestimated how much food I needed and that I must spread the load better which lead me to purchase a rear rack for my next adventures. TATR stands for“The Adirondack Trail Ride”, it is a loop of over 580 miles around the Adirondack mountains starting and finishing in the small town of Northville, NY.
Day one did not start well, I was late and not ready for the 8AM Grand Depart so I told Mike, the organizer, to start without me and that I would catch up. I left 10 minutes behind the pack and never caught up, but I did catch up to Jody, a 63 years old retired nurse in her 5th attempt which would become her 4th finish 10 days later. Jody is a bit of a legend on the race because she is the oldest woman racer and holds the record of the slowest finisherat around 11 days. After greetings and chitchats, I pushed on and left Jody on her own. The day was pleasant so far up to the Sacandaga River crossing at mile 34. A couple miles earlier, Mike, not the organizer but Jody’s husband, had left his old Ford Ranger on the side of the road with water and sneaker bars for riders - they live right there on River Road.
The crossing was fun and refreshing, I enjoyed it, although lifting the 60 lbs loaded bike above the guard rail on the other side was very difficult and a bit dangerous with trucks flying by at 55MPH. After that effort, I stopped for a snack on the steps of the Town Hall across the road while Jody and Mike were catching up on me, I could hear them from across the river.When you planned on racing for 5 to 6 days and the slowest rider who typically takes 11 days to complete the route catches up on you, doubts start popping in your head. As they both submerge out of the riverbank, I waited for them and we started riding together. Although I wanted to ride faster, it was nice to have company but when we reached the first forest trailhead,Jody stopped to deflate her tires and I kept going.
The trail in question is a 17 mile mostly unrideable extremely rugged hiking trail under dense forest canopy, which turned out to become a punishing suffer fest as I pushed the bike 90% of its length. Between the rocky terrain and countless down treesblocking the way, after a while I quit trying to ride as I kept needing dismounting every few hundred feet to overcome all these obstacles. Mid afternoon, I crossed path with hikers who told me the group was hours in front of me, encouraging, not!Past 6PM, light was fading fast in the forest and I had been pushing and lifting for 5 hours while only covering 10 miles. A patch of moss on a big rock looked like the best camping spot Ihad seen in hours in this forest littered with fallen trees. It turned out that it was the cleanest possible campsite of the remainder of the trail so I was well inspired to stop there. As I was setting up camp, Jody walked by around 7PM pushing her blue full suspension Juliana mountain bike, she said she camped here one year and kept going. I boiled water to rehydrate my freeze dry 900 calories dinner pack and at 7:30PM I was in my bivy sactrying to catch some ZZ’s while leaning against a heavy rock so I would not slide down the slope.
Day2, Search and Rescue.
At that point I was still in race spirit, the alarm woke me up at 2AM. You could cut the humidity with a knife and my bike computer was reading a bone chilling 37 degrees. After packing and a snack I started pushing again at 2:50AM, lit by the 750 Lumens of the Sinewave Beacon front light and 700 Lumensfrom my head lamp, both at full power (Sinewave is a company located in Cambridge, MA). At the same time my Bluetooth speaker was blasting country music making it less scary to proceed through the eerie forest.
Navigation was easy, the blue trail makers nailed on trees were shining at the lights, but visibility was terrible as the dense humidity and cold were fogging my glasses. With only 1oz of water left when I broke camp, I was relieved to finally find a nice little running stream of cold clean water around 5AM. I pulled the Sawyer water filter out of the left pocket of my frame bag to refill 2 liters of water, added a few drops of chlorine thenan electrolytes tablet in one of the bottles, this was my water routine.
It is now 5:50AM, an excessive amount of fallen trees made progression more difficult and the trail was nowhere to be found other than on the pink lines of my two GPS units. At this time of the day alone in a dark forest you do not expect any blinking lights all the sudden from behind a dead tree… I almost jumped out of my cycling bib. The blue Juliana mountain bike was there lying on the ground alone in front of me behind a large fallen tree. The Garmin Edge 1030 GPS attached to the handlebar shining and the orange SPOT tracker LED’s blinking at me.Jody was nowhere to be found, not good, few choice wordscoming out of my mouth, excuse my French...
From racing, the day turned into search and rescue – For a minute I was wondering how to handle the situation, although I am part of my town’s emergency response team, this was new. I started shouting Jody’s name and growing worry not hearing back for several minutes when a faint “help, help” finally responded. I marked the position of her bike on my GPS, and at the sound of her calls, I started bushwhacking towards the voice with my bike. Although it made progressing more difficult, I was not going the make the same mistake of leaving the bike behind, it did cross my mind, however.
About couple hours after she passed by my camp on the previous evening, she lost track of the trail at the same spot I found myself looking for it that morning. Jody dropped her bike with everything on it but her backpack and went on foot scouting for the trail. I could see that my Garmin 66i GPS was still tracking perfectly but our weaker Edge cycling computers lost it somewhat and that’s all the technology she had. While looking for the trail in the dark, she got disoriented and could not find her bike back. When tired of searching she spent the night by a tree in 37-degree weather with little food and water,quite far from her bike. It is very unlikely she would have been able to find her bike even in daylight, everything looks alike in the middle of the forest, there was no landmark and she was very lucky I was trailing behind, or this would have most certainly ended her race or worst. After I found her, I used my GPS to navigate back to her bike and she was very happy. We keep going together for a little while following the pink line on my GPS, I offered to make her coffee when we get out of the woods, little I knew it would take another 2 hours of pushing. I still feel bad about it, I should have done it on the spot even if it was not ideal, another lesson learned.
As we proceed together, we crossed path with someone sleeping on a bridge in his tent above a river. He only left about a foot between the tent and the edge of the bridge which was a good 5 or 6 feet above the water so I shouted “wakey-wakey”, he needed to be aware of us trying to squeeze by. The guy openedthe tent, he was one of us, but I did not ask for his name, he thought he was the last one and complained about feeling like he pushed the bike more than riding it, no kidding. A few minutes later Jody decided that she needed to rearrange things on her bike, so I kept going alone. I later learned that while doing so she lost two bottles and her breakfast pack. The bridge rider eventually caught up to me as I was leaving the town of Speculator, we rode a few minutes together then he took off and I never saw him again, he was just too fast for me to even try following.
Around 8AM, I was finally out of that nightmarish trail which took 10 hours to traverse, including an hour for search and rescue. At that time, I knew the race was over for me as I was expecting to have covered at least 60 more miles on day onethan I did. It took me another 5 hours for the last 7 miles of the trail on day 2 and there was no way I would be able to catch up on the 8 hours I lost over that trail. 17 miles should not have taken me more than 2 to 3 hours if I could ride my bike rather than pushing – I was very disappointed that this trail was part of the race, it should not, that did not make sense to me. At 9AM I found a nice camp site by the river where I stopped for almost 2 hours to wash myself, relax and eat breakfast, things take so long when you have to unpack and pack back, take care of your natural needs in the woods etc. I also fed the fish with a pound of tortillas that I decided I would not eat and were too heavy to keep carrying. As I left the pit stop, I did not know it yet, but Jody just passed by me on the road above less than 10 minutes before, our path would again cross one more time before the second forest section.
Around 2PM, as I’m riding by someone’s house, the lady on her porch asked if I wanted water. Naturally I stopped for water, she also offered a snack and let me recharge my electronics which I very much needed. Indeed, I was moving so slow that my dynamo hub was not providing any charging power to my devices and I was going to be in trouble soon without rechargingmy batteries, another lesson learned – carry more power even if it’s heavy and use power saving modes. The retired couple is from NJ and this is their summer house. They told me the group rode by the previous day around 7PM, I was floored. I could not understand how the bulk of the riders was on the way to the second woods section while I was getting ready to go to bed 15 miles behind and halfway into the first wood section. At that point, I decided I was going to be touring for the rest of the time I had left, going as far as I could but at a slower pace.
I left the NJ couple’s house at 3PM and Jody just passes by as I was getting ready to leave, she must have stopped for hours in Speculator for lunch and refill since she passed me 4 hours earlier, maybe she also recharged her electronics. I met her at the trail head where she was brushing her teeth with a bamboo toothbrush and talking to curious mountain bikers asking questions about her set up (it is not every day you see mountain bikes loaded with bags). That was the last time I saw her. The upcoming trail was easier and a lot shorter, I only had to push maybe 50% of it, still too much for what was supposed to be a bike route. In the forest, light was already fading late afternoon when I found myself face to face with a young moose, it took off as we saw each other but I could smell it when I passed. It smells like a mix of a cow and a horse. Within a couple hours the trail ended onto a gravel road, finally!! The road was nice from there and I could see the sky, there was also a lot more light than in the forest. Riding down that road, I passed bymultiple camp sites accessible by car which were all already occupied when I finally got lucky. I found a fantastic camp site only accessible by foot on the shores of Mason lake. Looking back at the tracking website at home, I realized that Jody stopped for the night a couple hours after me and just a few miles behind, she must have used one of the few “no camping” spots along the road or a legal one that I might have missed.Since I was out of the race, I did not set the alarm and slept for 11 hours, I don’t even sleep that long at home. I woke up just before 8AM while Jody took off around 5AM not knowing she just passed me again and from that point on, I remained in last position. What I did not know however, is that about half of the crew had already called it quit, that made me feel good after the fact, I was slow but more resilient than racers half my age and weight.
Today I was not going race at all, just touring until my last day before needing to turn back.
At 10AM I start going, quite a change from the previous day 3AM start. The day was cloudy and it was Sunday. At the Cedar River Flow, I stopped early afternoon to filter some water from the river while light rain started, it was turning much colder and windy. I was hoping the guy with the huge camper and American flag paint job super duty pickup truck would offer me a drink, he was too busy watching his campfire burning. Rain showers were in the forecast, yet after 2PM it started pouring for almost 2 hours and I had no rain gear, just a light windbreaker jacket, which to my surprise did a good job at keeping me dry. My bib, shorts and socks were soaked, however. It was so humid and cold that my glasses were fogging again and I had to take them off. I can’t see much without them, so downhills were a bit sketchy, but I got lucky not hitting any large rock head on. With the sand lifted by the rain, my drivetrain started making grinding noises, luckily, I had no shifting issues. Once back on asphalt just before the town of Inlet I took a right, off route, towards Seventh Lake where I had marked a lean-to waypoint on my GPS. I was not expecting such a beautiful spot for camping and the lean-to was even clean, which is unusual. It was still very windy and cold, but I washed quickly in the lake after setting up my tent before taking shelter and making dinner. A one pot freeze dry mac & cheese with mashed potatoes and peanut butter never tasted so good. It had to punch about 1200 calories, just what I needed!
Day4, Trail magic is not a fairy tale.
Again, I wake up without an alarm at around 8M and really took my time that morning, too much, I need to learn how to break camp much faster. It rained a little at dawn, so I waited for the rising sun to dry my tent before packing it. I drunk couple cups of coffee and ate well, by the time I broke camp it was already11AM. The day will turn out uneventful until the evening. The route was good, I was traveling at a good clip, stopped a few times to filter water and eat as usual. Even in the middle of nowhere I could not escape the elections, lots of hunting and fishing cabins in the region with obvious support for the incumbent everywhere but I hardly saw anyone other than a huge road grader. One of the roads was being regraded so it was quite a sandy mess, but I made it, not that I had a choice. I was uneasy when the route had us pass through a private logging land with a “No Trespassing” gate and I would hear them working down below not very far. Riding downhill fast, my rear tire lost traction on the gravel and had me headed towards an electric pole to my right at 25 MPH or more. Fortunately, I was able to recover before the otherwise inevitable dangerous crash.There were lots of very large dragonflies, the largest ones I’ve ever seen. It is my favorite insect so I thought that was cool, I love how they can turn their head and are not shy of humans, very few insects have an articulated head like dragonflies and praying mantises.
Another forest trail was ahead but it was ridable this time andthat is where the magic happened. As I was approaching the end of it, I could see “TATR Trail Magic” signs nailed on plywood boards, inviting me to spend the night in the lean-to’s and use the clean flush toilets or continue up half a mile for full service. Intrigued, I kept going to find myself by a table which had granola bars, water and an apple. The apple tasted delicious after 4 days eating dry food! As I kept going and leaving the trail, two women sitting across the road were cheering for me. I was stunned, what was going on here? This was the Oswegatchie youth center, one lady was the manager’s wife and the other their 15 years old daughter. They have been fans of the race ever since they rescued a disoriented rider a few years earlier (who I think was Jody) and have been “dot-watching” riders on the Trackleader website every year. They were tracking me and knew where I was and when I was going to show up since we all had a satellite tracker. That’s how you know the timing of every rider and all ultra-endurance bikepacking race work that way. Trackleader was co-founded by the current Tour Divide race promoter Mathew Lee, who stared in the 2009 Mike Dion documentary, “Ride The Divide”, depicting the 2008 edition of the race, which Matt won in 19 days and 12 hours.
Mother and daughter led me to the center, this was my home for the night, nobody was there, all the camps had been cancelled due to the pandemic. Her husband Todd was at a school committee meeting and would join us later. She offered me the dinner left over, a delicious pork shop with bacon and home-grown squash plus coffee. We talked for about an hour and a half. I learned that one year they offered a couple riders a “surf and turf” left over from a large group they hosted. I also learned that Jody and another rider passed by earlier in the day, Jody stops every year to say hello and the other rider asked for a car ride back to Northville. This was also my last day before needing to turn back but I was going to do it in style, ridin’ my bike. Todd helped me putting the route back together which I uploaded on my phone. I was too tired to transfer it to my GPS so I would just glance at it occasionally on the ride back. Around 9PM, I went to my bedroom in the lower level, took my first shower in 4 days, plugged-in my electronics and went to bed. As it turned out, I was not completely alone, mice got very busy in the ceiling above my bed and woke me up multiple times. In the morning, Todd told me he caught over 20 within aweek!
As usual, I was up around 8AM. By the time I packed, one of the employees came in and offered me egg muffins and coffee.To be honest, I was packing slow on purpose as I suspected I would probably score a hot breakfast by not leaving too early. Obviously, I was not going to pass on the treat ahead of a long ride home. After saying my goodbyes and thanking them for their hospitality, I headed back. It was cold but sunny, a significant amount of frost was on every metallic surface but had dried from the road already. I had no idea how long it would take me to ride back, Google was saying 14 hours so I thought I could beat that. I was so North in New York State that I could have ridden to Montreal, it would have been an easier ride than going south back to my car in Northville.
The day was mostly uneventful. I kept a good pace backtracking using some of the gravel roads I came through the previous day and some pavement where it was shorter to do so. As usual, I would have to stop a few times to filter water and eat. I was in good spirit the whole time and did not have any physical issues other than minor saddle sores that developed after staying wet in my chammy for hours a couple day earlier. A wet chammy is a sure ticket for saddle sores and next time there is rain in the forecasts, I’ll carry rain pants.
Late afternoon, I reached the town of Inlet near where I camped on day 3. It’s a small pretty town filled with tourists and they have an awesome general country store. I love old country stores. I got myself a 1-foot long made to order sub that was close to 2 lbs heavy, a 1200 calories bag of locally producedchips and a 300 calories coffee drink. With my dinner I sat at the local lake beach with a beautiful view of the lake and finished it all before heading to the local coffee shop where I ordered a 12oz “Red Eye”, drip coffee with 2 expresso shots at 5PM, I was wired.
Riding out of Inlet, the light was quickly fading. I do not recall exactly where and when but as I was cruising on a paved road a mamma black bear and two cubs ran by right in front of me. I just heard them and when I turned to my left, there she was running into someone’s backyard while the cubs were clinging on a tree looking at my light before they took off. Earlier in the day, I disturbed an owl which flew away in front of me and later that night I also spotted a fox drinking on the side of the road.After Inlet where I had the opportunity to fill up my water bottles at the public bathroom, I did not see any water after thatbut sometime between 11PM and midnight, a car slowed down to my side, rolled the window down and graciously offered a water bottle. I was not dry at that point but definitively low so that was a welcome fourth trail magic event. Late in the night I could see frost falling in front of my light and sticking on the road. Again, it was so humid and cold that my glasses were fogging, forcing me to regularly stop and clean them, it was so annoying and slowed me down a lot. Other lesson learned, I need to get other glasses and new leg warmers which kept sliding down my legs. My GPS was reading 33 degrees and I my feet were numb, but I was not getting cold overall as long as I kept moving. Lesson and note to myself, need to carry shoe covers. When I reached Speculator again, I was hoping the laundromat was going to be open so I could warm up but no luck. From Speculator, I knew I was only 70 miles from my car which I finally reached at 3AM.
I was shivering, turned the car on and let the heat unfreeze my feet for 15 minutes before going back outside, still shivering, to unpack and put my bike and bags in the car. I slept in the car for about 4 hours before going to the gas station across the street, it was the only breakfast option that early in town. I purchased alarge coffee, 2 Boston Pie donuts and 2 breakfast sandwiches, I needed the calories and the caffeine, but the coffee was so weak that I stopped twice for more on my 3.5-hour drive home.
That’s it, that’s how ultra-endurance races finish, no cheerleading, no finish line, on your own, at your own time. Out of the 580 miles originally planned, I did 354 miles. About 140miles on the last day alone, which took me 18 hours with the 1-hour dinner break in Inlet. This was my longest bike trip to date.Lots of bikepacking experience gained on that trip, things that worked, things that did not. More importantly, I had a great time and I can’t wait to get out there again on my bike, solo and with Valerie and Elliott. Bikepacking, bike traveling in general is a blast.